A new age of pressure. About Critique. Interview with Theo Smeets

Interview  /  CriticalThinking   CarolinDenter
Published: 16.04.2018
Theo Smeets Theo Smeets
Carolin Denter
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Klimt02 wants to start a discussion about critique and show various perceptions, we chose different interview partners from the field of art and design. Working in art and design might seem like a wonderfully idyllic and relaxed career choice, where you have the pure freedom to let your creative juices flow. Each of them represents a unique view and gives us an overview of their own experiences. This is the second interview of seven.

We talk with Prof. Theo Smeets, who has been working since 1998 as the professor for jewelry at the University of Applied Sciences Trier at the Department of Gemstone and Jewellery in Idar-Oberstein. He is Head of Department since 2017. He studied gold- and silversmithing at Schoonhoven (1982-1986) and jewelry design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy (1986-1992) in Amsterdam.
Some critics have seen the isolated location of the Idar-Oberstein campus as a symptom of social isolation of the academy as they assume little permeability between expert culture and life is given. How can this isolation influence the emerging artist and her/his work and how do you deal with this critique?
I guess the concept behind critique is the same everywhere. So how critique in an isolated place influences emerging artists depends on how you define “isolation”. For sure Idar-Oberstein does not present itself as metropolitan environment, but regarding gemstones it certainly is the capital of Europe. And I can reassure you: life” takes place - also in Idar-Oberstein! The effects of Idar-Oberstein’s rural location on our students are in fact quite positive. Our student’s intrinsic motivation is extremely high - since there’s no cinema and there are only a few bars as well as a theatre that doesn’t really meet the expectations of our students they work and work and work. However rural it may be, despising expressions likesocial isolation” are used mainly by people who probably only know Idar-Oberstein from Google maps or a holiday in the back seat of their parents car. For a profound professional development though I do not see any hindrances in being located in this city. On the contrary: sometimes moderately gifted but highly motivated applicants are given a chance to prove themselves, in the end they often do at least as good or even better than their colleagues from metropolitan spearhead institutions. 

Urban life is often too hectic, too loud and too fast to enable us noticing the more subtle and elementary opportunities and use them for individual progress. So it is not at al about social isolation - it is about contemplation and being concentrated on changes; about the ability to recognize and grasp chances when they occur; and it is about much work, high motivation, intense passion and lots of practice. A situation described in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. And also, working in stone cannot be done in a hurry or without concentration - as anyone knows who has done any serious stone cutting.

In the end, there isn’t any proof that urban surroundings are the more productive - on the contrary. This becomes clear when regarding history: cloisters and monasteries in deserted areas have always been centers of profound concentration. And just think about Dessau! Of course I wouldn’t dare to compare Idar-Oberstein with the Bauhaus - nevertheless, an exciting development is possible also in Idar-Oberstein. And even if life is not very cushy here for a lot of our students, this small town has features that certainly help make our department a stimulating and in the end successful brooder for applied art.

  •  I am convinced that it is the central task of applied art within society, to produce and deliver tools to enable its wearers to identify oneself within time and space of ones’ society. Therefore, jewellers are not only supposed “to empty their emotional bowels as a means of self-healing”

„Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored, just as art itself“, says Elkins James in his Book "What happened to art criticism?". One of the main causes of this situation might be the so-called “academization” of critical thinking. Considering that, what institutional changes would you like to induce?
I guess serious criticism cannot really be “unacademic”. Formulating a critique without forgone academization usually renders tabloid texts: based upon assumptions, emotions, and rumors. Critical thinking is defined as the process of forming judgments based on the objective analysis of factual evidence - with analysis being rational and skeptical as well as an independent and unbiased evaluation. Many people think this procedure is an authentically and exclusively scientific method. But that is not true. The reason why it often goes wrong (in art) is when, due to the lack of criteria, quality is confused with taste. So if art criticism is being ignored, then also because of a possible progressive “de-academization” of critics who do not seem to know how to keep up the necessary standards.

But in general there, fortunately, is a more profound academic approach to and within our field of work nowadays - a field that is mostly considered to be originating in crafts. But in my opinion, that's a false point of view. In earlier days, arts, crafts, and science were not divided up at all – on the contrary, they where one! Makers once used to be scientists and artists and craftsman - all in one. Nowadays we can still find this situation for example in the so-called native tribes: the jewellery makers are the ones wielding the fire and are renowned for their knowledge: they know about the history of the tribe; they know about the rituals, about the rites of initiations, about who is allowed to wear which kind of status-giving jewellery, who is to wield which weapons etcetera. In my opinion, these persons truly create applied art. Based on this we always get told: well, I guess applied art is a bit of art, a bit of design and a bit of craft. And even if applied art uses specifics and techniques from the other disciplines that is a very unqualified definition since their respective tasks and aims are quite different: where art contents itself with asking questions, design with finding fashionable aesthetic answers and craft with constructing functional solutions, applied arts has quite a different task: to make stuff with a social function – and beyond that: these kind of works are valid identifiers of their wearers within their society at a given moment. This is the core of what jewellery is about. So the value of the applied works lies within its validity within society. Such function nowadays doesn’t seem always relevant for jewellery makers in our culture. In my opinion, this needs to be focussed upon urgently.

Parallel to this, the field is being put up with terms as “art jewellery”, “author jewellery” and “contemporary jewellery”. These terms in itself are not false. Unfortunately, they have been declared to be important criteria to benchmark jewellers. And this is a process disruptive to the profession because of its separating quality. Such concepts are in the end damaging as they are not voicing and advocating the chances and possibilities of the jewellery beyond the bubbles borders. They do not interconnect. Thus they do not support our field of work very much - beyond stimulating the bubble to bubble for bubble's sake…

A profound, society-related knowledge and perception with a much wider scope is necessary. This is what critics should evoke but also where universities and academies certainly do have a task. Most institutions have recognized this – mainly because the repeated question of the students: what am I going to do to survive after graduation, is not that easily answered anymore. Some of the universities and academies are reacting on this – although it turns out to be quite a slow procedure.

To meet the demand for such enhanced prolific knowledge the Idar-Oberstein University has been organizing a bundle of activities:
- We have been organizing the symposium ThinkingJewellery for more than 12 years. 
- We started an artist in residence programme back in 2006 to enable students to learn from visiting professionals as well as to further educate professionals.
- We are working on a museum where historical production technique meets modern jewellery - the Jakob Bengel Factory.
- In 2018 the 4th Idar-Oberstein jewellery Summer Academy with 10 different classes, organized by Tabea Reulecke, will take place,
- We are very active in publishing: several books are on the market and this autumn we will start with a bi-annual series of theory books at Arnoldsche.
- We have setup a course “master of further education”, and
- We have installed of degrees of fine arts.

All of these efforts are aiming at an enhanced level of education - for students and their teachers, for professionals and, in the case of the museum and the Summer Academy, also for laymen. This bundle of efforts has not only been successful in widening the scope of the profession, it has also, within our university, made clear the relevance of theory in the faculty of art and design. As a result, we have recently advertised a new professorship for Social and Cultural studies in the context of Material Culture for our department in Idar-Oberstein.

Not only within the jewellery bubble but also within the academic jewellery field there are severe structural problems. Analogue to current developments in society, various catastrophic aspects of the Bologna Conference have put enormous pressure on the students. They are under permanent strain to complete their studies in as little time as possible. But if education needs anything, it’s time. Nowadays most bachelor courses have a duration of 3 or 4 years. And in such a short amount of time students need to learn the how” as well as “out of what” and “why” they make their jewellery. Universities need to guarantee, that students will receive an academic degree that has profoundly and adequately prepared them for professional life. But such fast-track courses aggravate most possibilities to develop an artistic identity. And in most countries even the vocational part of the profession is expected to be included in the academic courses: applicants without any experience in crafts can enrol. It seems that politics have taken to advocate the principle of “lifelong learning” to justify their permanent saving on basic academic education. It is completely clear that developing an adequate vocational and academic profile within 3, 4 or even 5 years isn’t really achievable – not in the sense of being sufficiently trained to not only become a sturdy and reliable taxpayer for the next 40 or 50 years as capitalism demands, but, foremost, it is an almost unattainable aim to provide a sound basis for a professional lifetime of fulfilment, joy and happiness in such a short amount of time. We can only hope for the future of education, that politicians in the end -or better: before the end- will recognise that a professional academic education needs time.

As academics, we need to fight this downright demolition of art education. And there are ways to do so – even if it usually means loads of extra work. As mentioned before: in Idar-Oberstein there is a Master in further Education. It enables jewellers with sufficient professional experience but without a previous attained bachelor degree to enrol (under certain conditions) in a Masters Program. Based upon their hitherto status of professional experience they study an individually configured program to meet the requirements of a masters degree. In striving for a more profound education we also have installed degrees in “fine arts” instead of “arts”. Not because we consider jewellery to be fine arts, but because there might be an opportunity to return to more adequate durations of study in Germany. Furthermore, this is a valid argument to throw open the (German) door towards degrees in “applied art”.

Last but not least there is a worldwide decline in the reputation of crafts and vocational training as most young people want to enroll in an academic course. This is a severe problem, which, in combination with the social pressure mentioned earlier, leads to the assumption: to absolve a “short track” education is sufficient. This is the reason why some applicants to our bachelor studies do not have enough experience in making but still raise the question how to spend less as the regular duration of the study. By the way, regarding the growing life expectancy, the social pressure on young people to “get productive” as early as possible is absurd. So necessary changes within the profession and its education would be in my opinion at least:
- To intensify research of the social value of jewellery by the jewellers.
- To make jewellery students more aware of their future role in society as creators of social identifiers through theoretical and  practical research,  in the light of 1 and 2, degrees in jewellery making courses should be awarded neither “arts”, nor “fine arts” but “applied art”.
- To stop the critic’s hype of evaluating and benchmarking jewellers work with labels like “contemporary”, “art jewellery” and “author jewellery”.

Again: it is not meant to stop using these words in general, but as it says: stop using them to classify. A contemporary piece of work is not necessarily good. And I guess we all know examples of “authors jewels” that do not possess enough contextual credentials to qualify as a work of applied art.

To revaluate vocational training and to establish a way higher status of the crafts as a solid proposition to academic education.

A University should be a place for developing new ideas and the own identity as well as a safe environment were errors can be made. Your involvement with art began as jeweller. What was it like to begin teaching and now find yourself in the role as a critic for your students?
I come from a family with lots of teachers - quite a number of aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces have been or are teaching. I have started teaching whilst being a student at Gerrit Rietveld Academy. Where my fellow students jobbed in restaurants or bars, I put a few extra benches in my studio and offered goldsmithing classes for laymen. So, becoming a teacher was kind of a natural process to me. Still, starting to teach at the university in Idar-Oberstein in 1998 was a challenge and very exciting - and it still is. It has been incredible to be part of a team that has been able to develop the gemstone campus from a more or less regional school with a vocational focus on gemstone and jewellery design to where we stand now: today about 25 bachelor and 30 master students from about 20 different countries worldwide are enrolled.

My role as a critic? To be teaching in our university in Idar-Oberstein is to be a critic among critics. And that goes for all levels – of course within the team there is critique in form of a perpetual exchange and scrutinizing of opinions. But also students criticize staff and this is, in fact, fabulous: when I drive home for the weekend, I am going over all the things I’ve learned that week. I guess that’s what is meant by a lifetime learning cycle”?

The main prerequisite for critique though is that it always needs to be given and taken on a professional level – that is: not personal. This is one thing the students need to learn as soon as possible – still, I remember my own struggle as a student. It sometimes felt as if the teacher was walking with spiked shoes over my soul. But what you learn with time is that the talk is about the work and about your development as an artist. Our department has over 50 students – so we know each other very well. That is sometimes an advantage and sometimes a disadvantage because as a teacher you definitely need to keep a professional distance. If a teacher cannot handle that distance and gets too close - in any sense of the word - he or she will end up criticizing the student and not the student’s work.

Furthermore, there is this thing with criteria being coherent to critique and critic. But some people seem to be unaware of criteria. Example? My niece has studied ceramics. One of her teachers told her I think your work is complete shit! (Dutch: “ik vind je werk kut!” [1]). On my niece's question to explain this remarkable critique along relevant criteria, she didn’t get any answer – the teacher just turned her back and walked off. I guess that person wasn't aware of any “relevant criteria”. To me, no relevant criteria signifies non-relevant critique; means unprofessional critic; means bad teacher! However the critique might be, I guess there is consent that teachers should never give devastating statements like: ik vind je werk kut. To me, that seems good enough reason for immediate dismissal.

Now to the student's question: how do you decide upon my grades? First of all: basically I think that grading in art is ridiculous - but that's the German system, so I have to grade the student’s work. To answer the question on how I grade and to countercheck intuitive judgment, I made a list of about 10 criteria to enable determining quality. As I initially made this list, I started grading each of the criteria separately for a while. After adding up everything I came to (almost) exactly the same grades as I passed out without the list. I still use that list as a reference for students.

Apart from defining criteria, in the Idar-Oberstein programs, we have established a system of team-teaching. As a crucial part of the discourse with the students also the teacher's critiques are examined and criticised - not only to keep us teachers awake and thinking, but also to show the students that there is no universal validity of opinions. No teacher in our department is solely leaning on experience, personal opinion or even counterchecked intuition only. Still, sometimes after a talk, I have the feeling of having been too harsh and I am reminded of my former professor's nail-shoes. But then I remember the haunting things I have seen and experienced after university. That was much more disturbing than the harshest critique during the study. So I guess teachers also need to prepare students for that. If you take critique personally and not professionally it will probably break you. This is a lesson that takes time to learn and therefore a university at the same needs to be, as your first question stated, a “safe space” as well as a considerate and fair but, if necessary, also ruthless sparring partner. Students must be allowed to make failures. If everything goes right at once, one hasn’t learned much and probably hasn’t discovered anything new. This safe environment enables the students to surpass the borders of their comfort zone without the risk of ruinous failure. To be in balance between sincere critique and that safe environment is an everlasting challenge for teachers. If you go too fast and push too much, you will lose the trust that is needed - it’s quite a narrow ridge.

Has teaching affected the way you think about the critics' relation to the artist and its pieces?
Sure. In theory any relation to the artist or to the pieces does not affect a “good” critic. Unfortunately, in reality, this is not always the case. Since most jewellery departments are small bubbles, the participants all know each other: students, teachers, guest lecturers and so on. It is a small world in which a professional relationship is often mistaken with friendship – those two do not completely exclude each other, but professional relationship and friendship are completely different concepts. This, by the way, is not only the case in universities, also within the Jewellery Bubble, critics and jewellers are prone to confusion with these. In such a situation of permanent nearness, it is sometimes difficult to exclude the person when judging. However also here I think it is a matter of working with a relevant set of criteria. With such, it is possible to focus on the questions of quality and avoid personal taste or even close friendship. In our university I’ve awarded works, made by students I do not like very much as a person, with highest grades – because the works were very good. I’ve also awarded works I personally do not like the highest grades possible - because those works were very good. And I have graded works, made by students I truly like, with bad grades because the works or the development of the student were not good. Still, it is not easy to respect the work when the maker is not a nice person. I guess we all know some loathsome colleagues. But their work can be good. So as a teacher you need a healthy detachment - parallel to a situation of caring for the individual development of each student. Not easy, but that's what professionalism in teaching is about.

How did you experience changes in the world of contemporary jewellery and the education system in the past decade? Do you see any changes in qualities and/or the abilities to be criticised?
In general see two main changes that have a huge impact on quality and the ability to be criticised: first of all globalization and, being a side effect of this, the Bologna Treaty.

Globalisation has brought a lot of new exciting options but also a shift in scale – “me and my world” has a completely different extent, a completely different range as in the “pré-internet-era”. Since Facebook I no longer am in concurrence with my direct surroundings only – nowadays, students and artists compete within a truly global field. I am not worried about the concurrence in itself - I am worried about the matter of size and the increasing awareness of how short one's arm is. Still, globalization is - for us jewellers – not only negative. I am convinced that shift in scales, the growing awareness of how small a single person in this globalized world is, is also a huge chance. This growing feeling of being part of a world too huge to grasp will certainly lead to more demand for “our kind of products” as jewellery is an identifier in our place and time.

The Bologna Treaty is part of a much bigger phenomenon: the late (or almost post-) capitalistic structures we live in. On a subliminal-level a permanent pressure is steadily being increased: A more effective performance within a decreasing amount of time is being demanded again and again. The younger generations, therefore, have developed a mentality accordingly. A simple example: If we ask students to help set up a fair or an exhibition or to organize an excursion, we nowadays often get asked: are there any credits for this?. It starts very early: general education is “preparing” pupils for permanent performance and playing doesn't seem to be a part of learning processes anymore. For art, this is a devastating development. And as I said, this is a mentality that society, through pressure on parents, has been imposing “successfully” on kids, already before they go to school. To be honest, I think this “new age of pressure” based on a demand for, let’s call it “capitalistic efficiency” has not at all led to an increase of quality. Opponents of this theory may assert that in a globalised world we can see much more wonderful pieces of jewellery as in the old days. But that is because the total amount of works that are visible, has gone way up. And this also implies the amount of not so good pieces that are finding a channel/platform has gone up.

I think in the end it just takes more time to become a well-established jewellery maker than society is willing to allow. Applied art education takes time. And such time will only be available as a result of a permanent struggle with basic principles of our society. During the application procedure we get asked more and more: Oh, is it a 6-semester Bachelor program? Can I also do it in 5 semesters?. In the end, quite a lot of students will voluntarily opt for a 7th semester though!

You‘ve spent a lot of time investigating contemporary jewellery, both as Jeweller and as Professor. What criteria do you use in judging art?
My criteria when looking at students work have two perspectives: “on the work” concerning content and technique and “on the development as an artist” on abilities and commitment. In the first category, I check things along questions like: what is the artistic depth and width of the piece? What is the statement? In which context has the student placed the work? Is the work innovative but at the same time accessible enough? Has an adequate technology been used and has any relevant material research taken place? Is the piece appropriately functioning according to what it has been designed for? Has it appropriate ergonomics? And, depending on the situation: is the work being presented appropriately? Concerning the personal development, I check: is there reasonable development and progress in design and technic capacities (since last project, semester, year)? How about the development of analytical abilities? And last but not least, is there a critical enough attitude and a healthy self-criticism, as well as enough motivation, commitment, passion, and self-initiative? It may be obvious, that all criteria mentioned above have to be applied at the level of the respective semester.

Also, colleagues have formulated interesting and helpful texts. On the issue of society in jewellery, Marjan Unger writes in her doctoral thesis:
Based on the conclusions from this research, five different values can be assigned to the piece of jewellery as an independent object. These are abstractions that can be concretized without difficulty in examples: the artistic value or the visual quality, the historical value, the social value, the jewellery as a means of identity marking, the personal and emotional value, the material and financial value. These five values are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, even relatively small items such asjewellery can contain a large concentration of different and interfering messages. The sum of values can just as easily result in all kinds of confusing and even contradictory or questionable messages, as well as in a particularly valuable interplay. [2]

How do you see the place of an art critic in the so-called Jewellery bubble?
For the main part: not at all. They should not have a central place within the bubble. Otherwise, they cannot help to change the bubble. The bubble itself is, in fact, harmful to the profession. It’s like a small tribe on a distant island and in the end, it all will get incestuous. If critics do a good job, they will support makers in the development of their role as applied artists. They should not criticize merely inside of the bubble but, at any moment given, establish interaction between the profession and the society. In the end, society might be able to live without our profession but the profession is meaningless without society. And, of course, a profession in a bubble is a profession with restricted contact to society. As a famous German comedian once said in another context: A life without a dog is possible, but pointless. I would say: A life within a jewellery bubble is possible, but pointless.

How important do you think it is to 1.) reach out to a broader audience and 2.) make an impact on how things are approached/perceived in society?
I guess two aspects will be crucial for the individual survival of jewellers: opening up within the profession and an intensified interaction with society.

During the symposium Jewellery Matters, organised by Marjan Unger and Susanne van Leeuwen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, November 2017, it has become very clear how scattered and even divided the jewellery field really is: the “art jewellers - from plastic to performance; the “fashion jewellers producing new bling-bling every season, the goldsmiths concentrating on superior technique, the gemstone cutters, the fancy gemstone and pearls traders – they all seem to not really know each other, and if, they sometimes are not really acknowledging each other's existence. I figure the possibilities of somehow getting more interaction between or even bonding these areas might be one of the first steps towards reaching a broader audience. Establishing such contact between the different areas of our profession was the aim of Jewellery Matters. I surely do hope, this wonderful initiative will have a follow-up! Our profession certainly needs it!

As I tried to explain before: I am convinced that it is the central task of applied art within society, to produce and deliver tools to enable its wearers to identify oneself within time and space of ones’ society. Therefore, jewellers are not only supposed to empty their emotional bowels as a means of self-healing - as Ted Noten once proclaimed his frustration on the field a bit drastically. In my opinion, this “self-healing”-method is one of many interesting and effective tools in the applied artist's box. But it is not the magic wand that can do the complete job, it is only one method of several which has indeed gotten a bit to much attention in the last 50 years. Much more interdisciplinary research is needed to help our profession to successfully focus on the needs of society for their identifiers. Instead of relentlessly producing self-centered regalia, jewellery has the potential to be much more of a mirror towards society as it is now. And even if the reflected image gets bent a bit now and again, that’s fine and part of the deal. So, to influence how society perceives itself and things through applied art, the first step is to intensively study society on another level as merely filtering one’s own experiences. By the way, this self-concentrated attitude also might be an explanation for an almost complete absence of political themes in modern jewellery. To me this is an astonishing fact, considering today’s news issues.

Looking at the history of art criticism, we witness a constant change of the field. From the archaic to a more admiring observer, who looks at the work and ‘contextualises it. How do you position yourself within this archetypical spectrum?
Even when I find myself permanently trying to put things in a larger scope and to grasp the historical and social meta-perspective, I am, of course, a child of my time. Thus I am contemporary, so to speak. And, for the bubble: that is not a rating but a statement [laughs].

As the author Peter Schjeldahl writes in his "Of ourselves and Our Origins”: Critics now are good at answers. We’re short of good questions. What do you think, would be a good question to ask?
I have been educated under the dictum that as an artist you need to make a statement. Unfortunately, jewellery makers aren’t usually trained well enough to either seriously interpret their statements or to ask relevant questions. So in fact there is a lot of – as Ted Noten has put it – emptying the emotional bowels. If you ask for the meaning of the work you’re told: It’s art. And if you ask why it is art, you’ll be shown a catalogue where some famous critic has stated so. A statement like I am a maker because it’s nice to make is, of course, legitimate – but if this is the only legitimation of applied art, it’s maybe a bit a too restricted professional horizon? To me, this indicates avoiding the central issues of a jewellery maker. Again: our questions should be: What is the task of our work within society? Or, on a meta-level: what is our contribution as an applied artist to society?

Art critics are not having exactly their best years – what do we risk by losing these writers and thinkers?
I guess the first part of your sentence is true for some. But there are also a lot of good critics and we will certainly not lose them. Their words will remain - as important contributions to the further development and integration of the field within society because these jewelry-thinkers are passionate about jewellery, and regarding its possibilities as the applied art.


[1] Urban Dictionary
[2]Doctoral Thesis: "Sieraad in context: een multidisciplinair
kader voor de beschouwing van het sieraad “ (“jewel in context: a multidisciplinary framework for the consideration of the jewel), Unger-de Boer, Marianne, Department of Art History, Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University, 2010-03-17

About the Interviewee

Prof. Theo Smeets
• * 1964, Valkenburg (NL),
• 1986 Vakschool Schoonhoven, Schoonhoven (NL),
• 1992 Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam (NL),
• Since 1992 atelier for jewellery,
• Since 1998 professor for jewellery at Trier University of Applied Sciences, Idar-Oberstein (DE),
• Lives and works in Wattenheim and Idar-Oberstein,

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2015 she made an Internship at Klimt02, where she is working since 2016 as Content Manager. In 2017 she graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she started working part-time as Marketing and Design management Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement.